How can you believe truth that’s stranger than fiction?

Sketch of the ill-fated Mignonette by Tom Dudley, the yacht’s captain. How did Poe see that far into the future?
Sketch of the ill-fated Mignonette by Tom Dudley, the yacht’s captain. How did Poe see that far into the future?

YOU MIGHT AS WELL write fiction. Nobody believes the truth.


The truth often reads more like fiction than fiction does.

Just listen to the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive of the things, which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over tis great city gently remove the roofs, and peep in at all the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross purposes, the wonderful chain of events, it would make all fiction with the conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.

There are stories taking place in real life that are too strange and bizarre to be believed, yet they are part of the historical fabric that makes up the comings and goings of the world at large.

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

Take Edgar Allan Poe, for example. He wrote a novel that fulfills every tenet of the author’s literary connection with horror. He called it The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and it told the odd tale of four shipwreck survivors who drifted on the open sea in a lifeboat for many days without food.

Desperate, they made a pact among themselves.

They would draw straws.

The loser would die.

The loser would make several meals.

A cabin boy drew the wrong straw.

His name in fiction was Richard Parker.

The tale was chilling.

Edgar Allan Poe always claimed that the novel was based on a true story.

He was right.

But there was one problem.

The true story had not taken place yet.

It was forty-six years later before the Mignonette went down in ocean waters.

Four men survived.

Four men and lifeboat.

The days passed, and they made a fateful decision.

They would draw straws.

The loser would die.

They would eat the loser.

The cabin boy drew the wrong straw.

His name, ironically enough in truth, was Richard Parker.

The stars do align strangely sometimes.

Try this coincidence on for size.

Wilmer McLean
Wilmer McLean

Wilmer lived the gentleman life of a farmer on the road between two major cities while the storm clouds of Civil War were boiling overhead.

To the North lay Washington, D. C.

That was where the Yankees had their capital.

To the South, the road led to Richmond.

It was controlled by Johnny Reb.

And Wilmer?

All he wanted to do was farm.

Bull Run was the battle that triggered the war, and it erupted along the road that ran right past Wilmer’s farmstead. The Confederates even confiscated his home and turned it into their headquarters.

Wilmer tried to hang around.

But the shots of war were coming too fast, too deadly, and too often.

Bullets were slowly tearing his house apart.

So, being of sound mind and body, Wilmer packed up and headed farther back into Virginia where, once again, he could find peace and a measure of solitude.

The sounds of war faded, then stopped altogether. He was beyond their reach.

But four years later, the Yankees of Ulysses S. Grant and the Johnny Rebs commanded by Robert E. Lee once again came to Wilmer’s farm.

Wilmer McLean watched Lee surrender his sword.

He watched the Confederates lay down their rifles.

He watched them ride away from the McLean House on the edge of Appomattox.

He watched a terrible war come to an end.

And he later remarked, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”

Try making somebody believe that in a novel.

Too contrite they would say.

We don’t believe in such coincidences, they would say.

But none of us can escape them.

Who would ever believe the fate facing Henry Ziegland? His was a trite old story, as old as time itself.

He broke up with his girlfriend.

Torn with grief, she committed suicide.

Angered and bent on revenge, her brother hunted down his sister’s old lover and shot him.

He was convinced that Ziegland lay dead, and, stricken with grief, the brother shoved the barrel of his pistol against his head and pulled the trigger.

This time, death arrived as it was supposed to.

The brother’s first shot had grazed Ziegland’s face and lodged in a tree. It would his mark of good fortune, Years later, for whatever reason, Ziegland decided to cut the tree down.

Maybe it had died.

Maybe he was still haunted by the bullet lodged in the trunk.

The tree, however, was too large for one man with an axe, so Ziegland decided to blow it up with a few sticks of dynamite.

The explosion dislodged the bullet.

The bullet struck Ziegland in the head.

He died where he fell.

Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was right. Maybe life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man can invent. The writers of fiction would never dare to put these stories on paper.

Fear is the reason.

Fear of ridicule and humiliation.

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  • Ah, the outliers. Statistics. They make good stories. Don’t rely on them for planning.

    But they make good stories precisely because they’re so improbable.

    I use coincidences deliberately (and rarely) but only to make things worse. And it’s still a gamble – if people notice, it looks contrived. Haven’t had anyone complain yet.

    Oh, and if you’re going to use one, sometimes foreshadowing like crazy makes it seem inevitable when it arrives.

    • I agree with you @disqus_hbiVM2ch01:disqus The outliers, what economists call the “black swans”…They do exist, however improbable. The 2008 Great Recession is there to prove it. It shouldn’t have happened but it did. And it seems “normal” to us, in the sense of “inevitable”, “logical”…I guess, that’s all that’s really needed to tell a “tall tale” and get away with it and make people believe in it: it’s got to look like something that’s both “logical” and “inevitable”. That’s all…

      And many thanks to Caleb for a fantastic post: I love the true stories you dug up, great!

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Thanks, Claude. Life is definitely fiction and many times deserves to be in a circus sideshow.

      • In life, the answer to, “That couldn’t happen!” is “Yes, it did.”

        In fiction, you spend a lot of pages setting things up so that when you decide to make them ‘happen,’ the reader doesn’t say, “That couldn’t happen!” We call that Art.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, when you can’t make that stuff up, it often reads like you did.

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